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Murton, Chono going down to wire for CL batting title

by Wayne Graczyk

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa has pretty much wrapped up the 2011 Pacific League batting title. With just a few games remaining, Uchikawa was batting .341 as of Thursday and had a 22 percentage point lead over his nearest competitor, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder Yoshio Itoi, hitting .319.

Uchikawa will have won the crown in both leagues, having led the Central League with a .378 average in 2008 while with the Yokohama BayStars.

This year’s CL batman race, though, appears to be going down to the wire with the main contenders being second-year players Hisayoshi Chono of the Yomiuri Giants and American Matt Murton of the Hanshin Tigers. Through games of Wednesday, Murton was the league leader with a .315 average; Chono was right behind, batting .313. The Giants had but four games remaining; the Tigers 11.

Whether it’s Chono or Murton who wins, the title will have been earned by a guy with great respect for his rival. Ask each of them what he thinks of the other, and you get a two-man mutual admiration society. Murton has talked with Chono (who speaks some English), and they were teammates for three days on this year’s Central League All-Star team. “He’s a good guy, a good hitter and a real good ballplayer,” said Murton.

Chono says, as a person and a player, Murton is “subarashii,” and that can be translated into any number of flattering adjectives; among them “wonderful,” “spectacular,” “fantastic,” “incredible,” “super” and “great.”

“I always enjoy talking to him,” Chono said of his rival. “He always says ‘good luck’ to me.”

Chono has led for most of the season, but a recent hitting streak of 30 consecutive games that ended earlier this week propelled Murton into the lead as the campaign neared its end. Chono said he thinks the winning average, whether it is put up by himself or the Tigers right-fielder, should be about .320. Murton figures it will be somewhere between .315 and .320, and he thinks Chono has an advantage.

“He has just those few games remaining,” Murton said of the Giants center fielder. “I have more games left and, should I go into a slump, my average could easily drop below .310.”

Throughout Japanese baseball history, there have been incidents where players vying for batting titles and home run crowns have won or lost them because of some strange happenings in those final, often meaningless, games on the Japanese schedule.

It has been well documented what happened to Randy Bass in 1985 when he was approaching the all-time single-season Japanese baseball home run mark of 55 set by Sadaharu Oh in 1964. In late games against the Giants, managed by Oh, Bass hardly ever saw any pitches near home plate and ended with 54 homers.

Oldtimers may recall the Pacific League home run title chase of 1965 between Katsuya Nomura of the Nankai Hawks and Daryl Spencer of the Hankyu Braves. Spencer was walked so much at the end of the season, he knew he would not be getting any pitches at which to swing — let alone hit — and he entered the batter’s box with his bat upside down; the barrel in his hands, the handle in the air.

There have also been several times when the leader in the batting race sat out his team’s final game or games if the pennant race standings had already been decided. If he did not play, his average would not go down, and the only way he could lose the title would be if the challenger got hot at the end, and there would be no chance of that if he were up against the pitching staff of the leader’s team.

Just ask Yasushi Tao about 1982. He was with the Chunichi Dragons pennant-winning team and trailed Keiji Nagasaki of the Yokohama Taiyo Whales by one point, .351 to .350, in that season’s chase for the CL silver bat prize with one game remaining and their teams facing each other.

Nagasaki sat out, but Tao played with a chance to overtake Nagasaki. There was really no chance, though — and you guessed it. The Yokohama pitchers walked Tao every time up and secured the batting title for their teammate.

Chono and the Giants will finish their season with a game at Tokyo Dome against the Yokohama BayStars on Oct. 22. Murton and the Tigers will still have two games remaining after that, on Oct. 23 and 24 at Hiroshima, and they may or may not be relevant to the final standings and CL Climax Series qualification.

Suppose Murton has a slim lead over Chono and the last two Hanshin games have no bearing on the standings?

Would Murton sit out and win the batting title on the bench?

No, he says he wants to play.

Prior to a Giants-Tigers game at Tokyo Dome last week, Murton said, “The batting title must be earned. Hopefully those last games will be meaningful, and I would expect to play. The season is 144 games long, and it is important to play them all if I can.”

He said Ted Williams set the standard 70 years ago when the “Splendid Splinter” might have sat out and ended the season with two games remaining, with a batting average that would have been rounded off and considered .400.

“He was hitting .39955 and he could have shut it down,” Murton pointed out. “But he played the final day and ended up with a genuine .400 average.”

Williams had always said he would not deserve a .400 average if he sat out, so he decided to play that doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics on Sept. 28, 1941, going 6-for-8 and ending with a bona fide .406 average.

This season’s Central League batting title should also be won fair and square and, whether it’s Chono or Murton, it will be awarded to a class guy.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at wayne@japanball.com